Bungling My Way Through Romans
As a young seminarian I was told: “You would be crazy to try and preach through the book of Romans without twenty years of pastoral experience.” I trust there is probably wisdom in that. I don't think it's mere coincidence that many of those men I regard as great preachers have not preached through Romans without such requisite experience. So, I admit, it may have been a bit of youthful indiscretion combined with hastiness that drove me to the pulpit to preach Romans as the first series of my first pastorate. But, as my two and a half year endeavor comes to an end in the next couple of weeks, I wouldn't change it if I could.
Romans is an intimidating letter. In it Paul plunges us to the depths of human depravity and then ascends to gospel heights where it's hard to breath. I have sensed that every step of the way. Indeed, and I don't mean this as a false show of humility, I've been acutely aware that my ignorance far outweighs my understanding, my weaknesses are far more than my strengths, and whatever zeal I have is often no match for my dullness. But even in my bungling attempts to understand and preach Romans my heart has been gripped by what Samuel Coleridge called “the most profound work in existence.” If I had to name a few things that have been deeply impressed on my heart it would be these--:
I have been gripped by the necessity of preaching. Paul's own desire to preach is really, if I can put it this way, the launching pad for the book of Romans: “So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome” (1:15). And that sets off a series of purpose statements. Why was Paul so eager to preach the gospel? Because he wasn't ashamed of the gospel (1:16). Why? Because it is the power of God for salvation (1:16). Why? Because in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith (1:17). And why is the righteousness of God needed? Because the wrath of God is being revealed against all ungodliness and unrighteousness (1:18). Our world which is defined by ungodliness and unrighteousness needs the preaching of the gospel. As Paul would later write: “So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ” (10:17).
I have been affected by my own unrighteousness. The good news of the gospel is set in the context of the bad news of my ungodliness and unrighteousness. There are none who can escape the searching eye of God's law: “None is righteous, no not one” (3:10), and before God all I can do is clap my hand over my mouth and stand in the dreadful silence of my own guilt: “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God” (3:19). I remember coming to the end of this section (1:18-3:20) and really fighting this desire to go back and start over—to retrace Paul's steps again and again and again until this truth was worked deep into my mind and heart.
I have become more thankful for the righteousness of Jesus Christ. If God's wrath is being revealed against all unrighteousness (1:18) and I am unrighteous (3:10) where will I get the righteousness I need so that God's wrath will not be revealed against me? It's in Jesus! “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law […] the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ” (3:21-22). Jesus lived the life the law commands and he died the death the law demands (5:6-19). By faith his life is my life and his death is my death (6:5).
I have been astonished by the reality that sin is my greatest contradiction. My identity with Jesus--namely his death and resurrection--and who I am in union with him is absolutely contrary to continuing in sin: "Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" (6:1-2). And as contrary as my identity in Christ is to sin, it is consistent with holiness: "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life" (6:3-4), and "But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life" (6:22).
I have been more fully persuaded that sin can never again condemn me. In Jesus Christ I have a definitive break with sin: "So you must also consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus" (6:11). By satisfying the righteous requirements of the law in his life and death, Jesus has freed me from sin's dominion and brought me under his dominion: "You also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead" (7:4). So whatever sin can do and however much it can harass me (7:15-20) it has no power to condemn me: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (8:1).
I have been grateful that God wants me to be fully convinced of my salvation. It's hard to sum up the greatest chapter of the greatest book in the Bible--Romans 8 is where we get to those heights where it's hard to breath for lack of oxygen. There are, not by hard and fast rules, eight assurances of my salvation in the eighth chapter. I can be fully persuaded of my salvation because I have been delivered from the law (8:1-4), I have the Holy Spirit (8:5-11), I have become a child of God (8:12-17), I am being prepared for glory (8:18-25), the Spirit is my help in weakness (8:26-27), I have been predestined for glory (8:28-30), Jesus intercedes for me (8:31-34), and the highest pitch of my assurance is the love of God in Christ Jesus (8:35-39). Thank God for Romans 8!
I am more confident that the word of God will never fail. While the majestic ninth chapter has some complexities of its own, Paul never calls into question the absolute and unconditional sovereignty of God (see 9:11, 13, 16, 18) especially as it relates to salvation. While from the vantage point of little man it seems as though his promises may fail (9:6), it is his sovereignty in election accomplished through the gospel of his Son (10:5-17) that guarantees his purposes will never be thwarted. And it is from this paramount truth that I can have all the confidence in the promises of Romans 8.
I have renewed appreciation that God has a purpose for Israel. The great majority of Israel has failed to attain righteousness because they "pursued a law that would lead to righteousness" and so stumbled over Jesus Christ (10:31-32). They are blind and deaf (11:8). Nevertheless, their stumbling is not a full rejections (11:1-5) nor is it final (11:11-32). Through their stumbling the promises have come to the Gentiles (11:25), and we pray for, long for, and labor for the day when God will again--for the sake of his covenant promises--have mercy on them through the gospel (11:32). The staggering reality of this mystery ought to move us to worship: "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!" (11:33).
I have come to appreciate more that the Christian life is lived in conformity with the will of God (12:1-2). We are intended to learn by experience that God's will revealed in his law is good, acceptable, and perfect (12:2). One of the central aspects of God's will is the love, peace, and harmony we are to express in the body of Christ (12:3-13; 13:8-10; 14:1-15:13). In the day-to-day fellowship of Christians there is no room for those who would demand their rights, liberties, and freedoms at the expense of a weaker brother or sister. In Christ we are free, but our freedom is not defined so much in terms of being able to do _this _or that, but a freedom to love, serve, please, and build our neighbor up in every good work (15:2). Doing this has a profound effect on our worship which is the very purpose of living in harmony with one another: "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (15:5-6).
While this is much more than I intended to write it also barely begins to reflect the way my soul was nourished and fed in the reading, studying, and preaching of this incredible letter. Perhaps I should have waited twenty years to preach through Romans, but my prayer is that the truths contained in it-the detailed and nuanced unfolding and application of the gospel--would become the very heartbeat of my next twenty years of ministry.